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How much does it matter where you went to undergrad?

  1. Mar 23, 2014 #1
    Hey all,

    I'm looking at my third year of university here, trying to narrow down what I want to do. As far as graduate schools, I'm pretty confident I can get into at least a low-tier school somewhere. I have a few publications and talks, and found out yesterday that I'm a Goldwater scholar as well. So far I have a 4.0, but I don't expect to graduate with that.

    The only downfall on grad school apps for me is my undergrad institution. My school is ranked #221 in the US for physics (LOL). I'm really kicking myself on this one, since in high school I turned down an acceptance from the school that's #4 in the US. I enjoy the school, though, and can't imagine going elsewhere.

    As far as GRE scores, the average for people at my school is the mid 500's. I'm going to aim for at least a 700, which should be interesting as the highest GRE score in the past ten years at my school was a 735. I think you get the picture.

    Anyway, when I apply to graduate school, how much does it matter where I went to undergrad? Looking at the forums at physics-gre.com, obviously people from Ivy and top 10 schools get accepted to much better schools, but do I stand a chance? Do I even bother applying to the "better" schools (CU-B, Caltech, Stanford, etc.)?

    For what it's worth, I'm also a female. Apparently that matters for some stupid reason. But that's another can of worms...
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 23, 2014 #2


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    Science Advisor

    Hi Sam.

    It's a hard question to answer i.e. it's not a black or white, "it does" or "it doesn't" type of question. That being said, don't kick yourself over your choice to go to your current university (financial issues aside). There are numerous factors that come way ahead of university ranking: GPA, research, recommendation letters, courses you've taken etc. Focusing only on applications, university ranking is more of a tie-breaker kind of thing. It would be a lie to say university ranking doesn't matter at all because it does without a doubt but it isn't a make or break component of your application.

    Sometimes rankings can have indirect adverse affects on your application. Does the university offer rigorous enough physics courses when compared with higher ranked universities? An A or A+ in a physics class doesn't mean much when it is much easier and of a much lower level of rigor when compared to e.g. honors mechanics at UChicago wherein students might on average not get as high a grade after the curve. Does it let you, as an undergrad, take graduate courses? Depending on where and for what you apply to grad school, you'll be competing with undergrads who have taken graduate level GR, QFT, EM, QM etc. Also, how well known and regarded, within their fields of expertise, are the potential professors writing your recs? Do you have research opportunities in your department? These are things you could perhaps ask yourself.

    Just because they're from an Ivy and the likes doesn't mean they're better candidates than you. Don't let the school they come from define them nor yourself. Whether or not you stand a chance depends on numerous other, more important factors. You're comparing yourself to a very specific aggregate class of students. Not everyone at top grad schools in a specific field are from Ivy leagues and the likes. I'm an undergrad at an Ivy and a lot of the theory grad students here are from universities that would fall outside the ranking bracket you mentioned above (I mention theory because I really only know the theory guys here).

    Would you regret it if you didn't?
  4. Mar 23, 2014 #3
    Excellent points. It's worth noting, though, that my university does not have a graduate program in physics, so taking grad-level courses is simply not an option.
  5. Mar 23, 2014 #4
    It's easier to come from big schools because their programs are generally better because they have more resources and allow you to get more research experience, do better on GREs and stuff like that.

    But my undergrad isn't even ranked in physics and doesn't have a PhD program but I was still able to get into MIT, Harvard, etc so you're not actually limited because where your degree is from. They care about the student not where he or she is from.

    Just study for the tests and do your best and you should be fine. Really.
  6. Mar 23, 2014 #5
    Interesting! And very encouraging. If you don't mind my asking, what was your GRE score?
  7. Mar 23, 2014 #6
    I just decided to send a PM because I have a lot of opinions I wanted to include.
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